By Sara Flanders
Controversial writer Tuhin Das was forced to leave his home in Bangladesh after Al-Qaeda/ISIS included his name on a hit list of 17 secular writers and activists who slammed them.
After receiving no help from local authorities, he became the latest writer to join Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum: a grassroots organization that provides aid and a two-year residency to writers that are in danger in their own countries.
“City of Asylum’s main goal is to give the writers the feeling they’re safe and want them to feel welcomed in this country,” Das explained. “I can see so many opportunities as a writer here.”
City of Asylum Pittsburgh has been helping writers like Das since 2003. They provide displaced writers with money to get them by, a house to work in and most importantly, peace of mind that they are safe.
In 2000, at the age of 16, Das started writing editorials about secularism in Bangladesh and religious political parties such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. For 16 years, Das brought light to social issues such as the misuse of loudspeakers at Temple to promote attacks on minorities.
In 2013, Das participated in the Shahbag Protests, which began as a handful of writers who wanted to protest for a harsher sentencing of a war criminal. After thousands of people joined the movement and it spread, Das joined in the marches, chants and read his poetry to other gathered activists. Fundamentalist organization Hefazat-e-Islami started a counter protest and declared war against the writers who started the protests.
“And my name was published in that hit-list also,” Das said.
The writers on the list were being hacked to death for their disapproval of the political landscape of Bangladesh. In 2015, Das tried to get help from local authorities, but instead of helping they started inspecting his writing themselves. In Bangladesh, writers could be arrested for hurting someone’s feeling with their work, so police told him he would be imprisoned if he continued writing. They recommended he leave the country. Das tried to ignore the threats he was receiving, but after being followed home one night, he knew he had to leave.
“I didn’t want to leave, I was forced to leave.”Tuhin Das
Das tried to stay with relatives at first, but they were scared they would be in trouble for helping him and would be put in danger themselves. He moved from city to city to stay with various friends, but after a news broadcast showed videos of him at the protests, he knew he would be recognized throughout the country and had to get out. He applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network and was brought to City of Asylum Pittsburgh in 2016 to begin a new life.
City of Asylum moved him into a house on Sampsonia Way in the North Side, connected to the row of houses of all the previous writers in residence. Besides housing, Das said City of Asylum provided him with fundamental things such as healthcare, a lawyer and now a job with the organization.
Tommy Nelson, City of Asylum’s Director of External Relations, says that people in the neighborhood love helping the writers in any way they can, whether it be through donations, helping them with their English, or giving them somewhere to go on Thanksgiving.
“We are extraordinarily fortunate to have a great deal of support from individuals,” Nelson said. “We’ve been really lucky in this part of town.”
Throughout his two-year residency, Das has been working on a book of poetry but has shifted his focus from politics to poems about nature, people and his adjustment to his new life. He plans to publish them with accompanying pictures to show what he is writing about. He was also able to work on his novel about a minority family in Bangladesh. The story is based on his own family’s experience growing up Hindu in Bangladesh and the discrimination they faced. He recently finished the manuscript of his novel and is hoping to get it published.
“I wrote [my novel] in Bengali, I wrote in my native language,” Das said.
Now that his residency is over, Das was hired as a Accounting Assistant for City of Asylum so he can provide for himself and stay in Pittsburgh. Abby Lembersky, City of Asylum Project Manager, says that Das also participates in poetry readings at different events they host.
“[He is] also quite active in schools around Pittsburgh,” Lembersky said. “[He does] speaking and reading at both high school and university level classes.”
Although he misses his family and his country, he likes Pittsburgh and plans on staying for a while to continue working.
“I want to get my book published, and then see what happens.”